There are five windows on the cover of Sigal Samuel’s debut novel; in only one of them does a pair of people appear.
In three of the windows there is a solitary silhouette, and in the window at the top, the blind is nearly pulled to the bottom of the sill.
The novel, too, is structured with each of three characters having a segment devoted to him/her and with the final segment named for Mile End, the community in Montreal in which the novel is set.
Arguably, however, the most significant portion of the novel is the one which could be presented by the window without a human figure in it.
For one of the novel’s themes is the relationship between words and silence, between presence and absence, between fulfillment and nothingness.
As is explained in the novel’s early pages, in the voice of 11-and-a-half-year-old Lev Meyer, the Talmud “says a word is worth one coin but silence is worth two”.
Ultimately The Mystics of Mile End is about solitary souls searching for understanding — sometimes engaged directly with other soul-searching individuals and other times alone, sometimes achieving a state in which their very selves are seemingly obliterated, something divine flowing through the space they once inhabited.
Mysticism certainly plays a central role in the story of the Meyer family, which readers will anticipate not only from the title, but perhaps from the inside back cover, which features an image of the Kaballah, the Tree of Life.
Readers first meet Lev, then his father (David) and his sister (Samara) and spend time with each character’s perspective.
The voice of each character is distinct, but the work is tightly linked thematically, so that the shifts in perspective feel organic. The timeline consistently progresses, so that the family’s experiences, which unfold in the wake of the mother’s/wife’s death, do not allow readers to disengage.
In the early pages of the novel, Lev is attending Hebrew school, under the tutelage of Mr. Glassman (who lives next door, close enough that the families’ conversations could be heard by the residents alongside). He is privately preparing Lev’s sister for her bat mitzvah and remains a central figure throughout the story. (Equally important to the story is his wife, although her importance is not fully understood until near the novel’s end.)
[Warning: there is much talk of ruggelach in this novel. A bakery outing was required. I chose raspberry, because I knew that the chocolate simply wouldn’t be as good as the way that Mrs. Glassman’s was described.]
Paradoxically, for a story preoccupied with silence, there is a lot of noise in the novel, in the world, but some of it is readily audible and some of it is not.
“I tried to imagine all the different voices that must’ve been travelling on the wind at that moment – radio signals, TV signals, messages sent into outer space – but the air around us was still and silent. We turned onto our block and it was hard to believe anyone on the planet had ever spoken a single word.”
Signs and silences: each of the novel’s characters has their own peculiar pursuits (readers are on the lookout from the moment they – and Lev – discover Mr. Katz’s literal representation of the Tree of Knowledge, made of toilet paper rolls and painted leaves).
And whether words are “simple carriers of pleasure” or the silence is deafening, the journey is powerful and emotional as each character strains to speak and to listen.
“She would sit there, on the floor of her bedroom, dinging that triangle for hours on end, as if all the secrets of the universe were audible in the rest between one note and the next. As she grew older she got less obsessive about the triangle, but not about listening in that strange way. When she was thirteen, I would find her sitting with the telephone pressed to her ear, saying nothing, hearing nothing, except, presumably, the dial tone. The next day, she’d be crouching in front of the dishwasher, attending to its chaotic rumblings as if she were in possession of a primer that allowed her and only her to hear its hidden harmonies.”
Rhythms are fluid; rhythms are disruptive. Two characters share a kitchen intuitively; a reader jots marginalia in response to a manuscript. Morning-rush-hour in a coffee shop is a dance; a 5pm phone call punctuates each day, even if the conversation is one-way.
“David Meyer’s library was a mess. All over the floor, volumes were piled into high, haphazard towers. Paperbacks overflowed the windowsills, their covers dusty and discoloured, their pages moisture-curled. On the shelves, academic tomes had been mixed in with volumes of poetry, plays, even picture books. How could anyone work in such an illogical, unreasonable place? Why would anyone want to?”
Equally valid is the question “Why would anyone not want to?” There is a unique pleasure in discovering a pattern in the chaos.
The mystery of David Meyer’s library is uncovered, new layers of understanding are offered (both to characters and to readers).
From a heart murmur to a pre-dawn bicycle ride, this debut novel purrs and pedals along; Sigal Samuel takes readers’ heartbeats in her capable hands and invites us to take a remarkable ride.
Myra Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000)
(For its similar love of words and bookishness and because I see aspects of Eliza in Samara)
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
(Because the young boy’s voice is just as spirited as Lev’s. I think his Tree of Codes story might fit nicely here, too, but I actually haven’t read that one yet.)
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love (2006)
(The relationship between the Glassmans made me think of this novel, which was one of my favourites that reading year.)